Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Super Robot Wars

They go by many names.

Armored Trooper. EVA Unit. Mobile Suit. Mortar Head. Jaeger. Heavy Gear. Ryude Knight.

They are Mecha.

Giant Robots.

While the term 'Mecha' was actually coined by the Japanese to reflect any kind of mechanized vehicle or device (a car is a mecha), it has become synonymous in Western culture with the large, humanoid, usually human piloted or otherwise operated robots seen in a vast number of Japanese Anime and Manga series.

For the most part, mecha, being machines of some sort, are largely relegated to Science Fiction settings, although a more than casual glance across the Anime/Manga spectrum reveals mecha in such diverse genres as medieval fantasy and steampunk to World War II alternate history and modern day 'superheroes'.

The granddaddy of all Mecha RPGs is, well, sadly it's Battletech. Unfortunately the giant robots of Battletech have little to do with Japanese entertainment fiction mecha. In Battletech, the very existence of the Battlemechs they use seem questionable at best. They overheat more often then tanks in the setting, are slower than all the aircraft, and don't generally seem as versatile as you'd imagine a robot with legs and arms would be. In attempt to capture the 'realism' of what giant, humanoid robots would be like (wait...I need to stop laughing. Realism. Giant Robots. Hold on, I can't breathe. OK. Whew.), they took away the beauty of having giant robots in your setting in the first place, IMHO.


The first game to truly 'get it', and the only name you'll ever really need to know for giant robot gaming goodness, was (and is) Mekton.

The creation of Mike "Right on Time, Ahead of His Time" Pondsmith and produced by R. Talsorian Games, Mekton wasn't inspired by the art of giant robots from Japan, it was ABOUT the giant robots from Japan. At the same time, it was very much about the people who piloted said robots, especially in its second and third incarnations (Mekton II and Mekton Zeta respectively).

Nailing the style and feel of Japanese animation and comics perfectly, as well as hitting that oh-so-hard-to-hit sweet spot between simplicity and crunch*, Mekton became a major favorite among Players and Gamemasters alike in the gaming circles in which I roamed. The flexibility and versitility of the rules system meant that it was adaptable to many different campaign concepts.

While the default for many is the military style giant robot war story seen in Votoms, Macross and the various Gundam series, the game also makes the superheroic mecha of Giant Robo, The Big O, Mazinger Z and others possible. With a few of the supplements (but in all honesty just a little imagination and a minimum of effort) you can easily create powered armor, cars, starfighters, massive space battlecruisers and even fortresses and space stations.

Practical? No. Easy to construct? Pretty much, yeah.
A number of other mech games have come out since the original 1984 release of  Mekton and, more importantly perhaps, the 1994 release of Mekton Z. The vast majority of these have been very much flashes-in-the-pan. The most popular and successful non-Mekton mecha game that really got the feel down right was Heavy Gear and the Jovian Chronicles, produced by Canadian based Dream Pod 9 and utilizing their Silhouette System. Heavy Gear was the most commerically successful, also generating a huge line of miniatures and a CGI animated cartoon.
Other notable mecha games include the mecha supplement book for GURPS (GURPS Mecha if I am not mistaken), Bliss Stage (a very cool and clever indie game patterned after Neon Genesis Evangelion) and to a fairly significant extent RIFTS (which is full of mecha, from battlesuits to gigantic striding metal menaces).
I could easily go on forever discussing this element of Japanese Amime/Manga and to that end I will follow this up with a post detailing some of the giant robot campaigns I have run in the past. For a long time, to many people who were only generally familiar with Japanese pop culture entertainment, all Anime and Manga was Mecha Anime and Manga. While the field is obviously far more diverse than that, it remains a favorite sub-genre of yours truly, possibly due to my general fascination with robots outside of gaming.
If you're interested, here are a few older posts on the subject of Mecha and Mekton:
Watashi-tachi wa tanoshinde imasu ka?
Barking Alien


  1. I had to go look at my copies of Jovian Chronicles to make sure, but it actually began as a Mekton supplement before changing over to Dream Pod 9.

    As someone who has most of the books, Mekton and its later iterations remains one of those "great games I never did."

  2. Indeed Jovian Chronicles began as a sourcebook for Mekton, the first to be produced by a 'third party' company. That is to say, the guys who made Mekton didn't actually make Jovian Chronicles. The guys who would eventually be Dream Pod 9 did. And yes, down the road they produced it as a separate game, using their own system.

    When I discuss some of my favorite RPGs from the late 80's and early 90's, I am often confronted with, "I'm familiar with that. I own it. I never played it.". Why? How does this happen? Why is this travesty allowed to endure?!

    Ahem. Rather, um, really Robb? How come?

    1. Mekton came, chronologically speaking, right at the end of my college career, and the first few years out of college were pretty sparse, gaming-wise, with the real only success being WEG Star Wars.

      Since then, I think there's a bit of prejudice in a lot of the gaming community about giant robot games (or the entire genre for that matter). It's too "Power Rangers" or something.

    2. As a small addendum, my never-happened Mekton campaign was sort of a Dune Universe with giant robots thing. Bene Gesserit with 12 foot laser swords.

    3. I'd play that in a heartbeat.

      I have tons of notes for an unrealized Mekton campaign called 'MechaTraveller', based on MegaTraveller's timeline where the Galactic Imperium balkanizes after the assassination of the Emperor.

  3. Don't feel bad Robb. Even though it occupies a fair bit of my bookcase, Space: 1889 is my favorite game I've never played.

    Both the RPG "Mekton" and the wargame "Battledroids" were released in 1984. "Battledroids" was renamed "Battletech" when the 2nd edition was released in 1985. "Mekton II" (1987) was a very good wargame wrapped in a serviceable RPG that could, within reason, recreate your favorite mecha anime. Battletech was a nearly unplayable wargame if you were looking to recreate a TV show, except, maybe, Xabungle. Battletech has had computer games, novels, and battle pods (networked, enclosed battlemech cockpit simulators). It still has a large, loyal following for reasons that escape me.

    1. For those new to the blog, RavenFeast is an old 'real world' friend of mine and we've gamed together many times. Among the things we have in common is a love of Mecha oriented Anime and a disdain for Battletech.

      My personal dislike of Battletech comes not from the wargames mechanics or the fluff, the latter of which I find very interesting and the former of which simply doesn't interest me (I'm not a wargamer).

      Instead, my ire for the game stems from the way they depict the mechs. Really, within the context of the Battletech Universe, that's right, in the game's own setting, there is no good reason to have humanoid mecha. They really suck. They can't engage in very much hand to hand/martial combat, don't trade off hand held weapons easily, don't fly or operate in space in a spacefaring Sci-Fi milieu and generally seem less capable and effective than aircraft, landcraft and spacecraft.

      Now, in later years this was modified, updated and retconned but still, these are literally tanks with legs capability-wise. As someone who first discovered Mobile Suit Gundam at the end of Junior High No thank you. I want my Mecha to be a bit more worth having.

      Ah...Space:1889. Lovely idea for a future post.

      Happy Fourth RF!

    2. The fastest way to win in Battletech was to put all your heatsinks (silliest play-balance mechanism ever) in your mech's legs, stand hip-deep in water, and pray for a head shot on your opponent. And folks wonder why I play Meka Tac to scratch my tabletop mecha combat itch. ;)

      Happy 4th to you, too, BA!

  4. Great post, Adam. Love the theme this month. I've always been puzzled by BattleTech's popularity, especially given that Mekton captures the feel of the genre so much better. Go figure. And wasn't BT partly inspired by Fang of the Sun Dougram? Some of the mecha look the same at least (the ones BT didn't rip-off from Macross, that is.)

    I had this idea for a mecha campaign involving a conflict between two gangs, the Mot├Ârheads and the Metalheadz. Imagine Genesis Climber MOSPEADA with bikers facing off against ravers, both sides equipped with transforming motorcycles. But it sounded too much like a Cyberpunk game, so I ended up reimagining them as booster gangs without the mecha. But I always thought it woulda been cooler as a Mekton campaign.

    1. One of the most interesting and short sighted bits in the history of gaming, Battletech flat out stole the images of the robots from several different Anime (most notably Macross, Dougram and Crusher Joe) and simply renamed them.

      I mean, in the early 1980's who could possibly fathom that we might someday see the cartoons made in another country. Especially a country like Japan. That's like, really far away and junk.

      Really? REALLY?!

  5. I personally miss the inaccurate 1980s sense of anime being mostly mecha (as I miss the zeitgeist of 80s fannish stuff in general), even though (ironically enough) I find Gundam unwatchably depressing these days. It seemed to dovetail so nicely with what was going on with cyberpunk, the (seeming) 80s sf boom, comics growing up with Watchmen and Dark Knight and independents, Star Trek coming back, etc. Or maybe it's just that I was a teenager.